[Game Warden Archives]

The Big Green for a Buck

Author Pat Dunford

Low-life trophy shopping is not the same as hunting for trophies - but just what can be done to stop it?

The long-term problem of trafficking in wildlife parts hangs like a dark cloud over the heads of all legal hunters everywhere. The trade in trophy antlers, horns and bear or cougar skulls - all measurable trophy parts of big game for which records are kept - are the focus of this column.

In Alberta, horns or antlers of hunted big game are allowed for sale only under a permit (not including naturally shed antlers - these are not considered wildlife). The sale of skins of grizzly or cougar is likewise only legal if authorized by a permit. The permit system is designed to deter anyone from hunting big game for the purpose of selling the animal.

In Alberta, serious cases involving the illegal killing of trophy animals for the purpose of sale are being prosecuted with increasing frequency. In contrast the sale of hunted big game animals is sometimes quite legal in some out-of-province jurisdictions with little or no official authorization required. What follows are some circumstances under which trafficking in wildlife may unfold here in Alberta.

Tale of an antler shopper

From the first moment he first saw the magazine picture of the deer trophy it captured his imagination. This was certainly how the modern label "mega buck" must have been coined. It was a deer with antlers of the very largest proportions. Only someone who dreamed of hunting trophy bucks could even imagine such an animal. Truly this buck might be seen alive only once in a lifetime, if ever, and probably only by either the luckiest or the most persistent of hunters.

He noted the name of the town nearest the kill site. He lived more than 3,200 kilometres from the town but surely there was a chance that other bucks with antlers of that size could be found there. Maybe it was worth the effort to go there and find one, he thought, even though such a hunt might cost a small fortune and offer no real guarantee of an opportunity. But he had another method in mind. A trophy deer could be had. If he couldn’t shoot one or just buy one flat out, he would pay someone to get him one.

The trophy trade

How does it pay to illegally traffic in trophy horns or antlers? Easily enough. Find where such trophies might be in the possession of someone who has yet to have the antlers or horns officially measured for entry into the official record books.

The records contain detailed specific measurements that firmly identify particular entries and so once recorded in such an official system, an animal cannot be entered twice without the attempt being discovered. A series of rules accompany these systems, including procedures to further ensure only proper entries are made. Only officially approved measurers may validate the score of an animal entered. Therefore an animal big enough to "make the book" but that has not been entered, obviously carries with it a much greater potential value.

Once an antler or horn buyer figures out where animals of trophy proportions may be found he merely travels to the location, either in the guise of a tourist or businessman or perhaps a hunter. In any case, it is simple for a trophy shopper to frequent coffee shops, bars or other gathering spots for hunters and others who may know the whereabouts of trophy-sized animals. It is easy for the buyer to prey on the very nature of hunters and friendly landowners who find it easy to talk about such things. Some information may turn out to be idle gossip. It is not often too difficult, however, to get information that "Old So And So has big antlers hanging in his garage."

Big Antlers and Horns on the O'Garage

It is not often too difficult, however, to get information that "Old So And So has big antlers hanging in his garage." Photo courtesy D. Boyco.

Various commercial businesses such as taxidermy shops can also be excellent sources of information. And one visit to Old So And So’s place might reveal a seller willing to part with something for the right price, no questions asked. Even if it doesn’t pan out, the visit might turn up a contact for a future shopping trip, particularly if a standing offer is left, again with no questions asked. Little harm in that, right?

Now perhaps it is not accurate to presume that a person who merely wishes to own a trophy animal killed by someone else also intends to obtain one which was hunted illegally.

However, beware a buyer who can develop a good many ready sources of trophy antlers and who asks no questions. Was the animal taken in an illegal manner, such as a kill at night with a light or over bait, or in a park or wildlife sanctuary, or out of season or on inaccessible lands? In some ways a poached animal can be even better for a trafficker than one legally hunted, as fewer persons are likely to have identified such an animal after it was killed. It doesn’t really matter to some indiscriminate buyers where it came from, as long as no one is likely to identify it later and it has not previously been officially measured.

Why is it important, you might ask, whether the animal was previously measured and entered into one or another record book? If the animal is not recorded the eventual owner (sometimes but not always the buyer) can either pretend he killed it himself in his favorite hunting location or pretend he killed it in the location he has recently hunted. Presently antlers or horns alone cannot be forensically matched to the home range of the animal. Perhaps some hunters returning from an expensive guided hunt in another state or province, find it better to go home with somebody else’s animal than to have it known they were skunked on a high-priced trophy hunt.

Yet another motive for a buyer of dubious character, is that he may simply wish to get his or her name in the books as the owner of a trophy animal.

Currently this is where traffickers can take advantage of the record book system. The practice of entering the trophy owner’s name into record keeping system is intended to allow the entry of very old specimens (where the original hunter may be unknown) or to allow the entry of animals found dead of natural causes. But this leads us to a big problem. Most record keeping systems in the province try to ensure the recorded animal has been hunted legally and taken by fair chase methods. However trophy antlers may be purchased for the sole purpose of entry into the records. Such a sale would only be prohibited if it was discovered that the animal was obtained illegally.

Many entries have been made in this way, by the owner of the head who it seems is ever eager to get his name into the records in some way. Considerable notoriety is associated with the entry of a name into one of these books. It seems the entry of one’s name into the trophy records of North American big game is associated with reaching a goal or accomplishment or otherwise a attaining prestige, eminence or public renown. It is even more evident that some people who have their names inscribed in the books suddenly find themselves under contract to advertise a variety of products for sale to hunters, a seemingly innocuous practice but one that has become associated with big money.

There are many ethical viewpoints at stake in this debate, not the least of which are those associated with the most basic of conservation needs. For instance, it has always been necessary to prohibit those activities which are found to challenge the principles of fair chase or those that bring about the undue exploitation of wildlife resources. These principles have been enshrined in the game laws mostly in the last 100 years, marking the removal of market hunting, the uncontrolled sale of wildlife and prohibition of the most exploitative and unethical practices of commercial hunting from North America.

Examples here in Alberta include bans on night hunting, the use of aircraft for hunting and use of vehicles to chase or pursue animals. Also, a ban on wasting most edible game meat prohibited the exploitation of animals that were hunted for certain valuable parts during the 19th century.

Finally, the sale of wildlife is now very closely regulated to ensure animal populations are not over-exploited. It was gratifying to hear an Alberta Appeal Court Justice state that one of the most volatile debates he knew of, occurred in the Alberta provincial cabinet was on the subject of the sale of wildlife.

I have the greatest respect for the longest lived of North American trophy clubs as their supporters have included many of the greatest conservationists on the earth. Yet I wonder if the time has come for the boards of governors of these organizations to realize that in the interest of preserving hunting as sport, they should address the matter of trophy entries.

It’s time to consider doing away with the practice of recording the names of trophy owners, other than the hunter of the animal. Other recovered heads could be listed with the hunter unknown.

To ignore this subject is to invite a continuance of problems that give hunting a bad reputation in many jurisdictions. To ignore this subject also leaves the door open for continuing violations in the sale of wildlife in all jurisdictions.

It will indeed take considerable courage on the part of these organizations to conquer this devil, before it is allowed to grow and eventually, to eat us up. Before this proposal is simply guffawed, members of these organizations had better reach back to their roots and to look to the viewpoints of those early leaders to whom they owe their very existence. When they do, a true shakeup may be in order.

Out-of-province readers can act as well, by letting their own political leaders know whether the laws on selling wildlife in their area meet with their expectations.

Pat Dunford is Vice President of the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers Association in Edmonton.